What? No children?

There is something about Mothers’ Day that can make a woman who has decided not to have children feel lacking in some essential way. After all, don’t all women want to be mothers?

As Jody Day, author of a self-help book for childless women, says:

“Perhaps the worst thing you can do on Mother’s Day is to presume that every woman is a mother, or wants to be a mother, or will be a mother one day.”

While relatively easy access to birth control and changing roles for women in the world outside the family have broadened the horizons of women’s lives considerably, not so subtle assumptions and expectations that all women want to have children continue to lurk about.

It’s our duty

In her 2015 essay “The Mother of All Questions,” Rebecca Solnit describes an interview in which she was questioned about her lack of children:

“The line of questioning was familiar enough to me. . . . the man interviewing me insisted that instead of talking about the products of my mind, we should talk about the fruit of my loins, or the lack thereof. Onstage, he hounded me about why I didn’t have children. No answer I gave could satisfy him. His position seemed to be that I must have children, that it was incomprehensible that I did not, and so we had to talk about why I didn’t rather than about the books that I did have.” 

Gloria Steinem found herself facing a similar line of questioning by Ian Brown when she spoke in Toronto a few years ago. Towards the end of the interview, in which Steinem had spoken about her life’s work to advance women’s equality, Brown asked her whether she had any regrets about not having had children. He seemed taken aback when she said did not and then persisted with further questions that left many of us in the audience squirming. Surely, we muttered among ourselves, he would not have asked a childless man those questions?

The cost of motherhood

Hilary Mantel, when interviewed recently by Elizabeth Renzetti, reflected on not having had children. She was matter of fact about the cost it would have entailed, commenting that because women still work to a man’s timetable and a man’s agenda, each child would likely have meant two books she would not have been able to write. 

Leila Slimani’s novel “The Perfect Nanny,” looks at the cost of motherhood from a different angle. Early on, Myriam, one of the novel’s protagonists and the mother of two young children, admits to herself that, much as she loves her kids, she is, well, bored being at home with them every day. She describes the motherhood of which she has tired as a “simple, silent, prison-like happiness” and declares that she wants herself back which, for her, entails a return to work. 

Undervaluing mothers

It seems women have the worst of all worlds here.

Girls are still raised to assume they will become mothers (chat with a random group of teenage girls if you don’t believe me).

Heterosexual women who have not produced children by the time those around them think they should have are interrogated in a way that their male partners are not. 

Anti-choice activists focus their vile hatred on women who end their pregnancies, not on the men who played a critical role in creating those pregnancies.

The message is clear: our job is to produce babies.

Yet, when we do, we are, as Slimani puts it in her novel, “confined to the world’s edge.”

For the most part, mothers, not fathers, take time away from work to give birth and raise young children. The lack of affordable child care coupled with the gender wage gap keeps mothers at home long after many of them would like to return to work. Men who participate even minimally in caring for their children are seen as heroic, but mothers who fall even a little bit short of perfection are held responsible for the failings of their children and, indeed, of the world.

But it’s Mothers’ Day!

So it is. And there are many women who have consciously and happily chosen to have children. For them, motherhood is a largely joyful experience. That’s a good thing, for them, their children as well as the rest of us, and Mothers’ Day is a chance for those women to be celebrated.

But let’s also make a commitment this year to creating a world where women are truly free to choose or reject motherhood without pressure or judgment and where women who become mothers can remain engaged citizens of the world at large.

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